17 years after my first official yoga class, I still get anxious when I attempt backbends. Back then, even baby cobra was tough. Wheel was totally out of the question. It wasn’t until I started rethinking backbends as “heart openers” that I turned the corner, and my life began to heal and change.
Because of multiple spine conditions alongside a general fear of being judged, I walked around with my chest caved in and shoulders slumped, instead of standing tall with a chest lifted and broad. At that time, my body language communicated fear and self-doubt, rather than confidence and emotional availability. Knowing what I know now, it’s no coincidence that I was always sick, insecure, and in a string of relationships I thought were amazing but were really just self destructive patches for the real issue: my heart was out of balance, in the dark, and not that healthy.
Let’s start with the science. Your heart pumps blood throughout your body, providing it with oxygen and the nutrients it needs, while getting rid of waste. When it’s healthy, it does its job well, leading to strong immunity and overall wellbeing. When your heart is not as healthy, or even diseased, you might experience respiratory problems, extreme sweating, or even myocardial infarction, more commonly known as a heart attack.
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The American Heart Association says yoga can help prevent or even reverse heart disease in as little as 12 weeks, primarily because it reduces the risk factors of high or chronic stress and lowers blood pressure through pranayama, the practice of controlling the breath to create calm, regardless of chaos or undesirable circumstances.
I was not aware of this when I went to my first class, but, I do remember feeling much more calm, less stressed, and more self-assured on the days I got to class. During this time, I treaded very lightly as my back began to feel better and my backbends progressed. Thankfully, I had lots of help when I attempted bridge and camel. Getting the front of my chest to open, let alone open wide was a major ordeal.
However, I was so far caved in and fearful, that despite progress on the mat, my heart health remained an issue. I still had to bomb my body with consecutive antibiotic rounds to fix chronic sinus and chest infections. Since high blood pressure runs in my family, and early signs showed up in my 30s, I tried to go to yoga more to combat stress, and work hard to eat better, too.
Many scientists who’ve taken a closer look at the more subtle side of heart health say when your body produces more feelings of happiness, love, and gratitude, you can steady your actual heart rhythms. Negative emotions raise stress and dampen the immune system, and a heart that is unhealthy physically generates more anger, hatred, jealousy, and chaos, which then can go back to weaken heart rhythms, leading to reduced wellness, depression, and frequent sickness.
There is a symbiotic relationship between a heart that is both physically and emotionally well. One feeds the other, and vice versa, so which would you choose? I didn’t go to yoga with the intention of back bending my way to health and love, but looking back, it looks like that’s what was happening, for real.
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Over time, baby cobras turned into upward dogs. Dancer’s poses turned into king dancer (with a strap still… not there yet), and bridges turned into bridges with an arm bind underneath by back. I was going deeper and becoming more open. Teachers kept saying, “open your heart,” and though at first I thought it was a load of crap, I started to get it. I was inspired to open up, rather than just bend my back.
Researchers with the HeartMath Institute say the heart, which is a muscle the size of a fist, produces an electro-magnetic field within the body and outward as far as 15 feet. So, the heart not only pumps great, life-supporting stuff throughout your body, it broadcasts positivity and goodness into the space around you. It helps you connect with others, because kind hearts are synching up.
During this time, when my heart was “opening,” I started to make better choices for myself: food, friends, and life style. I shed toxic relationships and met my soul mate. My doctor was surprised to find during this time that my height had changed: I measured nearly an inch taller! Could it be that a healthier physical heart was helping me channel more positivity, and that this brighter outlook strengthened my heart, opened it, and actually helped me stand taller? I considered this highly encouraging and a telling metric in the story of my heart.
Here’s another metric: 13 years after I took my first yoga class I did a wheel. I felt like I was soaring. No doubt, this was the best I’d ever felt in my own body – in my own life, actually.
Though I do still take calming breaths before each backbend, I attempt them, even when I don’t feel so great. Back then, my body told a story about how I was feeling and living – miserable, fearful, unhealthy, and lonely. Today, despite life’s regular challenges, my body reveals curiosity, possibilities, and more courage.
If you can reshape your body, can you change your life narrative? I think so.
My battle was a chronically inactive heart, which is the more common imbalance these days, but sometimes it can be the opposite: a heart so regularly overactive one experiences heart palpitations, leads solely with emotions, is codependent, and gives so much to the point of being drained and stressed. An overactive heart might also cause one to abuse the power of love or lack boundaries that support self care.
The heart needs to be flexible, able to open and close appropriately, in tune with one’s individual situations and needs. Here’s a calming, sequence that acknowledges both the front, back and sides of the heart space, plus spinal flexibility in stages for a physically balanced heart. Here’s what’s waiting for you: less stress, better immunity, and a steady heartbeat, all of which creates more loving, balanced energy in your life. In the yoga world, we call it santosha, or contentment. In our modern world, we call it happiness.
Related: Find opening physically and emotionally with this heart-balancing yoga sequence.